Georgia Proposal Would Put Education Schools to the Test
State officials in Georgia are considering shutting the doors of several public and private schools of education if their graduates continue to perform poorly on teacher-licensing exams.
The recommendation, made by the Education Reform Study Commission set up by Gov. Roy E. Barnes, would mandate that at least 80 percent of graduates of every racial and ethnic group earn passing scores on the PRAXIS II test.
Jan Kettlewell, the assistant vice chancellor for academic affairs for the university system of Georgia and a member of a committee that helped draft the policy for the study commission, said the proposal was modeled in part on a similar policy in Texas
"It is a good policy," she said. "If students in any one [demographic] group are not doing well, the institution is in a position to provide supplemental support and additional resources to get them up to the standards."
But critics worry that the policy ultimately would cut into the number of minority educators entering the profession at a time when the state is suffering a teacher shortage. They say colleges would be so afraid of having their programs shut down that they would screen out students deemed less well- prepared in an attempt to raise the schools' passing rates. Such students often come from poor families and receive lesser-quality K-12 educations, but still make fine teachers, the critics argue.
The commission acknowledges that the proposed regulations could pose particular problems for teacher-preparation programs at the state's historically black colleges and universities, given that African-American students tend to score lower on the licensing tests than their white peers do.
Majority-white institutions would still need to meet the 80 percent passing rate for their black students, but state officials say the challenge those schools face is less daunting because of the relatively smaller number of minority students enrolled in their teacher education programs.
In Georgia, prospective teachers are required to pass the PRAXIS II exam before earning their licenses. The exam, produced by the Educational Testing Service of Princeton, N.J., assesses educators' knowledge of the subjects they are hoping to teach.
Gov. Barnes, a Democrat, is currently reviewing the reform commission's proposal. Legislative approval would not be required for it to be implemented, state officials said.
Federal Mandate in Store
The commission's recommendation precedes by only a few months the implementation of a federal mandate intended to ensure greater accountability for schools of education.
Under Title II of the Higher Education Act as reauthorized in 1998, both colleges and states must present report cards to Congress and the public next year outlining their teacher- preparation programs and providing data on teacher assessment, certification, and licensure for the programs' graduates. Schools of education will be ranked within each state. ("Teacher Ed. Riled Over Federal Plan," Aug. 4, 1999.)
As part of Georgia's effort to comply with federal law, the state's professional-standards commission, which licenses teachers, is proposing a plan that is in some ways similar to the one suggested by the reform panel, said Fran Watkins, the standards commission's Title II coordinator.
That plan also would mandate that 80 percent of all graduates pass the PRAXIS II test for a program to be certified and provide for education schools that didn't make the grade to be shut down, Ms. Watkins said. But it does not call for breaking down students' scores by race and ethnicity.
Teacher-preparation programs can be closed if they lose accreditation under the current system, Ms. Watkins pointed out. Graduates' test scores on the PRAXIS II are considered, but far less importance is placed on passing rates than would be under either proposal. No Georgia school of education has ever lost accreditation under the existing system, the state reports.
It is unclear whether other states will opt to break down test scores of candidates for teaching licenses by race and ethnicity under the Title II requirements, said Ed Crowe, the director of the Title II Teacher Quality Program for the U.S. Department of Education. States face an October 2001 deadline for filing their first teacher-preparation report cards with the department.
Arthur E. Wise, the president of the Washington-based National Association for Accreditation of Teacher Education, warned that the proposed Georgia policy could produce negative side effects.
"It is not an unreasonable expectation that the vast majority of students be expected to reveal that they have [content] knowledge," he said. "But one of the worst consequences is that it could close the teaching profession to some people."
Under the plan outlined by the governor's reform commission, the passing rate on the PRAXIS II would be only one of several criteria used to determine whether teacher-training programs received state accreditation, Ms. Kettlewell said. But unless the mandated number of graduates passed the test, institutions would lose their accreditation to prepare educators.
The policy would be phased in, so schools of education would not be in immediate jeopardy, Ms. Kettlewell added. Programs would also have time to improve before being closed, she said.
Mr. Wise of NCATE said it was troubling that the plan calls for punishing only schools of education, when colleges' arts and sciences departments are actually responsible for much of the subject-matter instruction that aspiring teachers receive.
At least 16 of the 34 teacher-preparation programs in Georgia failed to get more than 80 percent of their graduates to pass the exam in the 1999-2000 academic year, data from the state professional- standards commission show. Only three schools had all of their graduates clear that hurdle.
None of the state's six teacher-preparation programs at historically black colleges and universities made the grade. The passing rate at those institutions ranged from 30 percent to 75 percent. The schools together produce a large segment of Georgia's black teaching workforce.
"Those institutions would have the farthest to go, but it is doable," Ms. Kettlewell said.
She points to Fort Valley State University in Fort Valley, Ga., as an example.
In 1998, 36 percent of graduates passed the PRAXIS II at the historically black university, said Curtis Martin, the dean of the college of education. Last year, 47 percent of graduates passed the test, thanks to a new standards-based grading system, he said.
Tried in Texas
Georgians can look to Texas to predict how the Education Reform Study Commission's proposed policy might play out.
In 1998, that state mandated that 70 percent of a college's teacher-training graduates from each racial and ethnic group, as well as both genders, pass state academic-content and pedagogy tests. In 2002, the state plans to raise the bar to 75 percent.
Since the implementation of the policy, 16 teacher-preparation programs have failed to meet the current goal and were placed on probation, state documents show. Six institutions are now considered "accredited—under review" and have been given deadlines to improve or face closure. One program will lose accreditation next year if it does not improve by the end of the current school year.
While some Texas education schools have responded to the new system by toughening their entrance requirements, others have worked to better meet students' needs once they've enrolled, said John J. Beck, the dean of the college of education at Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos and a member of the state board that certifies teachers.
The state has not collected data to find out whether the supply of minority educators has shrunk, Mr. Beck said.
"It is a mixed bag," he said. "But from the state perspective, we feel that the exit exam is necessary for accountability and for public reassurance that the people who have graduated have a knowledge base that will help them become successful teachers."
Vol. 20, Issue 15, Page 29